Q & A: Tim Whelan

With more than 20 years of experience, Tim Whelan has been on the front lines of some of Saskatchewan’s most ambitious e-government projects. In a conversation with Blair McQuillan, assistant editor of CIO Governments’ Review, Whelan, senior advisor for security and privacy in the Saskatchewan Information Technology Office, discussed how one of those projects is progressing and where he sees e-government heading in the years to come.

A. All of my adult life I’ve been interested in technology – particularly technology that enhances communications. At various points in my life, I’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology as it related to communications.

When I started with the government I was an information officer. I was the first to use desktop publishing, the first to develop elaborate slide presentations, the first to use a Web site. Our government put up its budget papers on a Web site in PDF files before anyone in the country had thought about doing it. I was also the Y2K coordinator for the province before I started getting into security. So, IT has always been an issue that interested me.

Q. What has been your most memorable experience since you came on board with the Information Technology Office?

A. First of all, working with the people from other provinces and the Government of Canada has been really memorable. It’s heartening to see some very intelligent people sit around a table and try to solve these vexing problems of how to improve government in the 21st century using technology. These people are working hard on the issues they face and trying to overcome the barriers that are put up by organizations and policy in order to find solutions that will benefit Canadian citizens. I think Canadian taxpayers would be heartened to know that these kinds of activities are going on and that people are putting a lot of effort into these issues.

The other thing that has been memorable for me is a project we have in Saskatchewan called CommunityNet. It is the public sector data network for the province. CommunityNet encompasses 366 communities and 1,200 facilities, including schools, government offices and health facilities. Our office is primarily responsible for the project.

The actual negotiation was a two-year process in order to get all of our ducks in a row to pull it off. We had to get all the departments in place and get everyone to agree to the funding formula. It’s been rolling out for about a year and a half now, and it will be finished in about six months to a year.

The great majority of [the communities] are outside of our major cities and they didn’t have any kind of LAN access before. They’ve gone from dial-up, with all of the problems one would have with that, to LAN access overnight.

That was a remarkable achievement by this office.

Q. What has been the greatest challenge that you have faced in your job?

A. The greatest challenge has been getting substantial progress on important issues where there are cultural or institutional barriers for people to work on things. That happens inter-provincially, and of course, that happens within any kind of government. It can be frustrating.

Q. What challenges is the Province of Saskatchewan currently facing when it comes to e-government?

A. The government has not organized itself in a way to move dramatically and to take advantage of technology and fully realize e-government. I think the government has realized that and they’re working on some organizational changes which will make moving towards e-government solutions more effective and quicker. There are similar challenges inter-provincially for people to work together and solve these issues. But there are often not the resources. Often there is not a clear line of authority.

Q. Where do you see e-government in Saskatchewan going in the next five years?

A. Most jurisdictions would have similar aspirations as us. The aspirations of the CIOs collectively is to have a seamless government, so that any citizen can come in and get the information that they need from the Government of Canada, the Government of Saskatchewan or their municipality – and have it all displayed in an intelligent manner. That is where I hope it will be in the next five years.”

Q. And what about e-government on a national level in the next five years?

A. I see the same thing as I see for the province.

Q. Why is e-government important to citizens?

A. Increasingly, the Internet is the way that everyone does business. I also think that very much has to do with age. A certain generation of people likes to deal with people face to face. With my generation and with people who are younger, I think they would just as soon conduct their business and gather their information online. Being online saves time and reduces the room for errors if it is done properly. It’s also more convenient because you can access the Internet in the evening and on the weekends. That’s happened in a whole variety of areas and the public has an expectation that the government will operate in the same way. And as the children of today become adults, they will have that expectation, and governments need to be meeting it.

Q. According to a July 2000 survey conducted by Erin Research Inc., 70 per cent of Internet users in Saskatchewan have visited a government Web site. Why do you think so many people in the province are accessing e-government?

A. The culture in Saskatchewan is generally more receptive to a government presence. They used to say that Saskatchewan was the most political province in the country and that you couldn’t walk down the street without getting into an argument with someone who had a different political perspective. We are a population of people that is very much interested in politics and very much interested in government. Accessing the government through the Internet is just a new way of expressing an old fascination.

Q. As for yourself – where do you see your job as the senior advisor for security and privacy taking you during the next five years?

A. I’m looking forward to doing an increased amount of work in the area of privacy. We’ve been very fortunate in Saskatchewan because we haven’t had any major privacy problems – no major privacy scandals. But at the same time, because we haven’t had any it’s not an issue that’s had a lot of attention paid to it.

We don’t have an administrative framework for privacy in Saskatchewan. There are no privacy rules. Most of our thinking about privacy is based on a paper-based world. The way that privacy was handled was to keep the filing cabinet locked or you denied people access to the room where all of the files were stored. That kind of thinking needs to be revisited when you’re in a connected world and so much of that information is potentially available online. It’s about changing the culture within government to appreciate the risks and opportunities that are around e-government and the risks regarding privacy that need to be managed.

To have both the security and privacy issues solved are prerequisites for e-government. We have been working on security, but we need to do more work on privacy. That’s where I think I’ll be spending a greater portion of my time.